Bill Gunnells was just 22 when he served in the Korean War as an air traffic controller.
His memories of the conflict were stirred when the Calhoun County resident, now nearly 90 years old, toured the Berman Museum’s newly opened “The Forgotten War” exhibit Thursday night; the exhibit opens to the public today. Gunnells looked through artifacts owned by men like him who served in South Korea, including uniforms, personal effects and weaponry. He recalled the immense task of guiding aircraft in a war zone. There were a lot of planes in the air, he said, and they flew at lower altitudes than they would in the U.S.
Once, a pilot radioed him to complain that a bomber had flown down out of the clouds and nearly collided with his own aircraft. Gunnells laughed recalling the conversation.
“I asked him if he recalibrated his altimeter like I asked him,” Gunnells said. The other pilot realized he had not. “He just said ‘dang it.’”
Gunnells was one of a handful of Korean War veterans at the invite-only event, which drew about 40 people to the museum to take a first look at the exhibit.
The project was six months in the making, according to Sabra Gossett, the museum’s registrar, and the researcher and writer of the exhibit. She started with a scrapbook of war-era photos and pulled items from the Berman Museum’s extensive artifact collection. She was motivated, she said, because the war is often overlooked in U.S. history, sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War. It was called the “Forgotten War” as early as 1951, she said, just one year into the three-year conflict.
Items on display include medical equipment such as sterilization and suture kits; a stretcher for carrying the wounded and an unfolding, steel operating table; and a copy of “MASH,” the book that later became a movie, and eventually spawned a television show that’s now tied forever to the conflict.
“We didn’t want it all to be about ‘MASH,’” said Gossett, “but we did need to acknowledge it.”
Other relics included personal effects on loan from a local resident. One of those mementos is a poem written by the mother of 2nd Lt. James Thompson Jr., penned after she received a telegram confirming her 23-year-old son’s death in 1952, after he was reported missing two years prior. The two mementos sit in a glass case beside Thompson’s ring, recovered from his body where he was found in a rice paddy that year.
“My favorite reaction is when someone cries,” Gossett said. “I know it sounds bad, but it means they got it.”
A monitor in the museum lobby played images from the war, including photos of some of the 27 Calhoun County veterans who died in the war.
Alan Robison, museum director, said that the role of a museum is to connect the community with history and help them understand it. The use of real artifacts is the most direct way to make those connections, he explained.
“Books, monographs, magazines, you’ll get overviews from them, but this,” Robison said, “this is a personal story.”
The exhibit will be open through April; admission is included with a standard ticket to the museum.